Is Education Wasted on the Young?

The following discussion provided the basis of some opening remarks Professor Chris Taylor was invited to give at the launch of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, led by NIACE Cymru with support from the Welsh Government and Big Lottery Fund Wales, on 10thFebruary 2015, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. This first event involved a panel discussion on ‘Is education wasted on the young’ also involving David Hughes (CEO, NIACE), Louise Harris (Big Learning Company), and chaired by Rob Humphreys (Director, Open University Wales).

From a philosophical perspective it is difficult to argue that education is wasteful, whoever it is aimed at. The key issue for me is, do we waste what is made available? To answer this, I believe, requires an empirical rather than philosophical analysis of education.

I would suggest there are two sets of reasons for why education may be wasted on the young:

  • Cognitive arguments: There are a relatively small number of often small-scale studies that show associations between better outcomes for older learners (inevitably from studies in the Further Education and Higher Education sectors) – and we see this when examining university outcomes – students who start at a later age tend to do better than those who start at age 18; However, cognition is cumulative, therefore older learners usually benefit disproportionately from their earlier education and experiences.
  • Instrumental arguments: mature learners are more likely to make more informed decisions about their educational choices. For example Mary Curnock Cook – Head of UCAS – recently said that university may be wasted on the young since school leavers often choose the wrong degree; that they sleepwalk into higher education.However, given that early education is compulsory (and there are limited school choices in Wales) and the National Curriculum is increasingly constrained, particularly in Wales, we do not actually encourage/allow younger learners to make any decisions about their education, let alone informed decisions.

General Election - Education

Equally I would suggest there are two sets of competing reasons for why education may be wasted on the old:

  • Economic arguments: Particularly the perceived value of early intervention. James Heckman (American economist) famously argued that $1 spent at age 4 is worth between $60 and $300 by age 65 – the cumulative value of prior education. And this economic argument is now being routinely used by Governments around the world.However, the educational experiences and qualifications of parents are also important in determining children’s outcomes – e.g. recent research shows that this could now be more important than income or social class; indeed, my analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study found that the educational progress of children between age 3 and 7 may be more associated with improvements in the educational achievement of their parents than any other changes a child experiences over those four years (including changes in household income).
  • Arguments about Inequalities: It is routinely claimed that later inequalities are largely determined by early inequalities, and specifically that early inequalities worsen over the life course; addressing inequalities at a younger age is said to address inequalities at an older age. Therefore Government policy on mitigating disadvantage is increasingly targeted at compulsory education, and increasingly at younger children (indeed the Pupil Deprivation Grant in Wales is due to be ‘extended’ to 3 and 4 year olds to allow for even younger intervention). However, family and background is often the constant in an individual’s educational career, particularly until young people leave home (which, importantly, is getting later in the life course); addressing contextual inequalities is therefore just as important as intervening at the individual level.

Despite the arguments ‘for and against’, it concerns me that there is increasing attention on the education of the young, and in recent years, at the financial expense of adult education. And I think there are two main pressures for this:

  1. What Frank Furedi has termed the demotion of adult authority, and the associated inflation of the authority of the child – this has led, among other things, to more child-centered approaches to policy, particularly in terms of education policy and policies designed to alleviate the impact of disadvantage. In Wales, for example, this is demonstrated by the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the introduction of the more child-centered Foundation Phase curriculum and pedagogy.
  2. What I refer to as the ‘race to birth’ phenomenon (not to be entirely confused with the ‘race to the bottom’ in economic deregulation, although both are implicitly critiques). The ‘race to birth’ arises from the importance of prior achievement and experience on later outcomes. This has meant any interventions to increase social mobility are increasingly being aimed at a younger age group. For example, the aims of theFoundation Phase (for 3 to 7 year olds) included “increased participation in post-compulsory education or other vocational training”, “reduced socio-economic disparities within Wales” and even “improved inter-generational transmission of positive attitudes and influence on education and learning”.  Furthermore, one of the aims for Reaching Wider Partnerships (for widening access to higher education) includes helping learners with the transition from primary to secondary schools when they are only 11 years old! Where does this end

The problem with these two pressures is (a) it is increasingly difficult to privilege the role of adults in debates about education (both in terms of the role of adult expertise and adult education), and (b) any small return on large investments in early years interventions will always be seen more positively than equivalent small returns on large investments in adult education. As Dominic Cummings, former education advisor to Michael Gove, said just before he stood down as advisor, “There is great political pressure to spend money on things like Sure Start, but little scientific testing, refinement and changing budgets to reinforce demonstrated success. Therefore billions have been spent with no real gains”. In Wales we estimate that the introduction of the Foundation Phase has increased the cost of primary years education by approximately 11%. Even though the apparent benefits of the Foundation Phase have proved modest, it is difficult to argue that the cost of any benefit/improvement has not been worthwhile when (a) any improvements in attainment are better than no improvements, and (b) we think about what the cumulative benefit for those learners could be over the rest of their education and life course.

adult learners 3

To conclude. It would be an interesting scenario if we were to begin with a blank canvas for the education system for Wales. How would we decide how and where to allocate resources? And what forms of education would we provide for people of different ages? Where would we begin?

However, one thing that does come with age is wisdom. Wisdom is not just about what we know, but also what we do not know. With wisdom I am increasingly more aware of what I do not know. And this includes a greater uncertainty about what education is for.

Whenever someone says, with confidence, that education should do X and Y, or that we should focus more on early years or more on adult education, we should pause and consider whether that is right or whether it just reflects vested interests, a current fad or simply reflects the status quo.

We do not know precisely what the future needs of education really are. We do not know exactly what contribution going to school five days a week, 39 weeks a year, actually brings. We do not really know what the relative benefits of investing in early years education are versus investing in adult education.

If we begin to admit that we are not entirely confident what education is for, then, at least, we can say, with some confidence, that we do not know if education is wasted – on the young or the old.


David Hughes reminded us of the potential benefits of reducing or removing the shackles of qualifications, particularly in adult education. The same argument could be applied to my point about what education is for. It seems, increasingly, that the purpose of education is about qualifications and metrics. But these should be the outputs, not the inputs. It could be argued that we have reached a critical epoch in education due to (a) the changing demands of the global labour market and (b) the accumulation and advancement of (scientific) knowledge. Without a proper debate about how the education system ought to respond to these major challenges it is likely that the instrumental value of education will continue to dominate education policy and decisions about the allocation of resources.*

* These are additional points I made following the panel discussion. 

About the author: Professor Chris Taylor is Principal Investigator of the Foundation Phase evaluation, and the Co-Director of WISERD, based at Cardiff University.

Image source: Adult learners – Newman University, via Flickr